World Health: 25-Year Environment Plan

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Tuesday 9th April 2019

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Derek Thomas Portrait Derek Thomas - Hansard

I completely accept that. We must find stronger methods to manage that practice, and I wrote to the Secretary of State in the last two weeks or so to ask him how we can toughen up on it. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise it, and I am glad that she has had the opportunity to do so.

I mentioned how important west Cornwall and Scilly is. It boasts some of the most important and precious parts of natural England. For example, due to careful management we are seeing the recovery, as I said earlier, of the Manx shearwater, a rare seabird, and the storm petrel on Scilly. That seabird recovery project has brought members of the community together to rid some of the islands on Scilly of litter and rats, which has led to the survival and remarkable recovery of these rare seabirds. There is a need to continue that work and to expand it to other islands on Scilly—as I said, there are just two places across the UK where the birds nest—and I would welcome a commitment from Government to fund this valuable and successful initiative.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard

The debate title contains the words “world health”, so we are not talking just about the United Kingdom. Would my hon. Friend therefore welcome the financial investment that the Government have made in the island of South Georgia to do precisely what he was just talking about? Thanks to the RSPB, we have annihilated the mice that were destroying the birdlife. The birdlife on that extraordinary ecosystem is now returning to the vibrancy that existed before the whalers arrived more than a century ago.

Derek Thomas Portrait Derek Thomas - Hansard

That is a really valuable point. As my right hon. Friend described, and as I described in relation to Scilly, managing the rat and mice population to protect ground-nesting birds is essential. We must look at how we can develop new schemes, particularly as we leave the EU, to ensure that we fund such work properly.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) I have been applying for this debate since July of last year. I stumbled on World Health Day, and I thought if I included those words in the title I might get the debate. That is a tip for the future. As I said to the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), there is an opportunity for global Britain; that was my reference to the world.

We are also seeing the recovery of the Cornish chough in west Cornwall—another reason to visit. When we protect and enhance those natural habitats, the benefits are widespread. Wildlife, the natural vegetation and humankind all win when we get this right. I thank the RSPB, which has already been mentioned, in particular for the time that its representatives have taken to show me around some of the remarkable work that is being done to support natural habitats. I call for Government support so that that work can thrive.

As has already been said, the Government should be commended for the 25-year environment plan, which sets out the approach to protecting and enhancing our natural landscapes and habitats, leaving our environment in a better state than we found it. As we know, the plan sets out goals to create greener, cleaner air and water, goals to support plants and animals to thrive, and goals to provide a cleaner, greener country. That is the right course of action. Everyone deserves to live in a healthy, wildlife-rich natural world.

The truth is that, unlike the Prime Minister and I, many have little access to clean and green countryside. The lack of access to nature is a significant factor in health inequalities. Those living in the most deprived areas are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas, according to the Wildlife Trusts. Increasing access to wildlife-rich natural surroundings can help to stop the rise of preventable, life-limiting and costly illnesses, and reduce avoidable health inequalities.

Despite all the benefits of the natural environment that I have set out, public engagement with nature is low. Nearly 40% of the English public do not visit nature even once a month, with 13% of children reported as not spending any leisure time outside. I call on the Government to act quickly, and implement the nature and wellbeing policies promised in chapter 3 of the 25-year plan.

Those policies include progressing the natural environment for health and wellbeing programme, and delivering environmental measures through planning—for example, by making environmental net gain mandatory. For the Duchy of Cornwall, which has committed to becoming carbon-free by 2030, these tools are essential if we are to achieve our carbon-free ambition. Local authorities must be supported by Government and given the right resources for the right ecological expertise to ensure the greening of our towns and cities—or, in our case in Cornwall, a single city.

I am asking Government to provide an update on the progress of the commitment to incorporate nature-based, health-interfaced interventions in the NHS and the three-year natural environment for health and wellbeing programme, all of which feature in the environmental plan. GPs in my constituency have led the way in the innovation of social prescribing, as we discussed just a moment ago. It is important for the Government to clarify the timeline of the natural environment for health and wellbeing programme, so that the good work being done is adequately funded and replicated.

For the ambition of the 25-year environment plan to be realised, it is essential that the Government introduce an environment Bill that contains a legal obligation on this and future Governments to take action for nature’s recovery. As has already been mentioned, we need a nature recovery network to bring nature into every neighbourhood, and to ensure that everyone—whatever their background—has access to wildlife-rich natural green spaces every day. All this should be underpinned by statutory targets and a robust, independent watchdog that will uphold the law and stand up for the environment. I would be glad if the Minister can set out when she hopes to bring forward the environment Bill.

Break in Debate

Mary Creagh Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 4:56 p.m.

One of the shocking things that we discovered in our microbeads inquiry was that if someone eats a plate of oysters or mussels, they consume 30 microplastic particles. It is particularly into those bottom feeders—that seafood—that this material goes. There is evidence, I think, that it can pass through the fish gut, so as long as the fish is cleaned, people will be okay, but we know that it is accumulating in the guts of seabirds, and we do not want our marine life to be choked, entangled and starved to death, whether that is by large plastics or smaller plastics, so I welcome anything that is done on this. We do not know whether the plastic particles act as vectors for chemicals such that the pollution that exists in the sea, that persists in the environment, attaches to these plastics and then potentially is delivered into our bodies. These are big emerging areas of science, and I am grateful to the chief medical officer for commissioning research on the matter.

We know that insects are the canary in the coalmine. That is a slightly mixed metaphor, but there is the issue of insects and insect loss. They make up two thirds of all life on Earth, but they are almost invisible and are being lost at alarming rates. Forty per cent. of species will be at risk by the end of the decade, and there is a 2.5% decline in insect biomass each year.

As the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said, this has to do with climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report entitled “Global Warming of 1.5°C”, published last October, warned that we have just 12 years to avoid catastrophic climate change. It warned that the rate of biodiversity loss will be twice as severe in a 2° warmed world as it will be in a 1.5° world. The difference that that makes is that in a 1.5° world, 90% of the coral reefs will be lost, so our children will be able to see the remaining 10% of coral reefs, whereas in a 2° warmed world, our children will never see a coral reef. That includes the cold-water coral reefs on the southern border of the UK as well.

Richard Benyon Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 4:57 p.m.

Does the hon. Lady share my increasing anger that our conversation in this place and the conversation in this London postal district of SW1 among the commentariat is obsessed with one issue, which will pass and will be, in history terms, a blip in the road? What we are talking about in this debate is an existential issue, and we have to wise up to that. The young people who campaigned recently on the doorsteps of MPs need to be listened to. This is their future. We as a Parliament have to start reflecting the anger that people are starting to feel about their future, and we have to start doing something about it.

Sir Charles Walker Portrait Mr Charles Walker (in the Chair) - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 4:57 p.m.

Order. Let me just say to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) that I would like to get one more speaker in, so if she could finish at three minutes past 5, I would be very grateful.

Break in Debate

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con) - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:02 p.m.

Thank you for squeezing me into today’s debate, Mr Walker, and I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing it. At the outset, I will welcome the 25-year environment plan, which is a great step forward for this Government, and the environment Bill, which is the most exciting piece of environmental legislation that we have had in this country for decades. I am so proud to be part of a Government that will be bringing that Bill forward, and I hope that I can get involved in doing so.

As has been touched on, that Bill is much needed. We have had terrible crashes in biodiversity, not just in the UK but internationally. I will quote a couple of statistics. First, we have had a 75% crash in the number of farmland birds in the UK since the 1970s. I grew up on a farm, and I used to see yellowhammers every day as I went to school. I have not seen one in years and years; I do not know who else has.

Richard Benyon Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:04 p.m.

Come to my farm.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:04 p.m.

I will go to my right hon. Friend’s farm in Berkshire, but there are certainly very few yellowhammers left in Somerset.

There has also been a two-thirds crash in the global population of flying insects. Insects are our friends: we need them, and we cannot survive without them. I did entomology as part of my university course, and people probably thought that was amusing, but it is proving very useful. Insects pollinate our crops, and we need a world in which they can thrive. It is very important that we put legal obligations into the environment Bill that commit us to achieving all the things that are stated in the environment plan and that will hopefully be put into that Bill.

Nature recovery networks have been mentioned. I have been involved with the Somerset Wildlife Trust, which has a very good model for those networks; I believe the Minister knows about them. They are like a framework for all land use and all the things that go on to a piece of land, so that we can work out what is important, what to concentrate on, what has disappeared, what we can add and what we need to work on. They are very important.

I would also say that our rural areas will be important to us in the future, because they are like the lungs for the urban centres. They provide us with green space, places for tourism, places to grow food, flood control and all those things. We need a much bigger agenda to bring the rural area into helping us to solve our biodiversity problems.

Break in Debate

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dr Thérèse Coffey) - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:32 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing the debate. He spoke eloquently about the beautiful part of the country that he represents. Of course I have visited it more than once, and for me Mousehole stands out particularly. It is right that we should talk about elements of the countryside, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we also need to tackle the urban environment, recognising that more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities.

The 25-year environment plan sets out how we will deliver our commitment to pass our planet on to the next generation in a better condition than it was in when we inherited it. As I said last week to the Environmental Audit Committee, during its inquiry into planetary health, the 25-year environment plan is one of a growing set of strategies intended to have a positive impact on the health of humans and the planet that sustains us. It may be a plan for England, but its ambition extends to the world beyond. It commits us to taking on an even more prominent international role in protecting the planet, whether by pushing the agenda on climate change, tackling biodiversity loss, or leading by example through the development of innovative approaches such as natural capital accounting.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) is right to say that Scotland is playing its part—certainly with respect to biodiversity. He mentioned littering from vehicles, and the Government have already taken the power in question. The legislation is in place and councils have powers to make it easier to find the owners of vehicles from which littering takes place. I look forward, on this occasion, to the Scottish Parliament and Government catching up.

A key component of the 25-year environment plan’s domestic strategy is connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing. There is increasing evidence, which has already been widely discussed in the debate, that spending time in the natural environment improves our mental health and wellbeing. It can reduce stress and depression, boost immune systems and encourage physical activity. It may even reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Several Members referred to a mental health programme, the natural environment for health and wellbeing programme. DEFRA, NHS England, Public Health England and Natural England, along with the Department of Health and Social Care, are already working together in alliance, and more information will be made available later in the year. However, I want to stress that this programme has already launched two evidence-gathering projects to inform the design of the programme. We have also established a board to oversee the implementation and, once the evidence-gathering exercises have been completed, more information will be available.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced last year a £4.5 million investment to boost social prescribing. As the hon. Member for Totnes said, that is an important part of what can be done. I know that several Members recognised that in the debate.

In terms of our youth, the Government have committed £10 million to our Children and Nature programme. That programme will make school grounds greener and make it easier for pupils to visit green spaces, particularly those children from disadvantaged areas. It is also intended to increase community forest and woodland outreach activities and to transform the scale and scope of care farming.

Richard Benyon Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:35 p.m.

Is the Minister, like me, pleased that, when she was working in 2011 with her boss, the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when he was Secretary of State for Education, the natural environment White Paper reduced the health and safety guidance for schools for learning outside the classroom from more than 100 pages down to just 11 pages? It is that kind of change, right across government, that can make a difference to getting people out into the countryside—particularly the young.

Dr Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Coffey - Hansard
9 Apr 2019, 5:37 p.m.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, he authored that paper, which is why it is so excellent and long-standing. He is right to push that particular issue. He should not be modest. I am sure that he will give credit to my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman); but I know that he was the driving force.

As has been said, 2019 is the year of green action and is providing a focal point for organisations, individuals, communities and businesses to learn more about their environmental impact and take action to reduce it. That is why we have partnered with the charity Step up to Serve, to help encourage environmental youth social action through their #iwill4nature campaign. I also met with the Minister for Civil Society and know that she will be taking this up with the National Citizen Service, to make sure that they are also fully involved in these projects, not only this year but, I hope, going forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives referred to the benefits of tree planting. Besides the social benefits of community forests, to which I have already referred, it is true that trees benefit us economically and environmentally, in particular in sequestering carbon dioxide. That is why the 25-year environment plan sets out our ambitions for tree planting. In addition to the 11 million trees that we have committed to plant across the country, we will ensure that 1 million more are planted in our towns and cities. We have also been consulting on the rules that we want to see in place to make it harder for councils to cut down trees when they become a nuisance, rather than being cherished for what they are.